Thursday, March 31, 2011

AI Top 11 Recap: Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza...

So, according to Ryan (whose usual hair stylist must be on vacay, because the new 'do isn't too flattering), "everyone is still buzzing" about last week's results show. Maybe 'cause Nigel Lythgoe won't stop Tweeting about it?

It's Elton John Week, a theme that hasn't occurred since Season 3. However, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me has been sung at least once every season, so I'll bet someone will break out that seldom-heard chestnut, don't you?

Anyway, our judges were all smartly attired this evening, with J.Lo resplendent in a purple one-shouldered sparkly number that made her look pretty darn hot. And rock stars like Steven don't have to follow the "no white pants before Memorial Day" rule, I guess. The fancier duds are all because we spent the evening focusing on the makeover each contestant had in preparation for Entertainment Weekly's photo shoot.

First up is our little country boy, Scotty. He talked about how it was cool to get dressed up but of course, he's just a country boy at heart. Apparently he found the one country song Elton John ever wrote, Country Comfort. How...convenient. Jimmy Iovine encouraged him to sing a different verse of the song instead of the one with "I saw my grandma down at the store," but Scotty mentioned that his grandmother would be in the audience.

So, accompanied by Scarlet (his guitar), Scotty's performance was, well, Scotty-ish. He made a point of hitting the low note at the end (you know, the one that "gets" J.Lo), but it wasn't as impressive as it's been previously. Oh, and when he got to the "grandma" part of the song, he even gave her a shout-out, "Love you, Grandma!" I find it interesting that he can turn everything into a slow country song and that's ok, but Pia's singing ballads isn't. The judges, of course, kept his fan base in mind loved it. Randy said it felt like he was watching a performance at "Scotty's Place Bar & Restaurant, brought to you by American Idol," and that he is in the zone. J.Lo praised his "amazing instincts" and was encouraged that he keeps himself grounded. Steven told Scotty "there's nothing I could say that an old-fashioned pair of cowboy boots couldn't solve," and praised him because he loved his grandma. We're one step away from proclaiming a vote for Scotty is a vote for America, folks. Seriously, though, he's a polished performer with a great voice, but I'm just not wowed by him anymore. He, too, needs to break out of his comfort zone a bit. Not that the judges will tell him so.

Naima was next up, and chose to sing I'm Still Standing, because she said it was reflective of how she felt about still being in the competition. She decided to change it up a bit, and give it a reggae twist. Jimmy encouraged her to start with a dramatic introduction that served as a message of support for those struggling in the world right now. (Really? We're scripting the contestants?) Naima apparently remembered she has a Jamaican accent, because she sang the entire song that way. And the lighting even matched the colors of the Jamaican flag. It was irie, mon. As always, Naima is entertaining but she chose another song that did her no favors vocally, as the song includes numerous refrains of "I'm still standing." J.Lo liked Naima's reggae swag, but questioned whether this was the song "to make a 360-degree, umm, 180-degree, whatever" shift. Randy tried to pretend he was one of the cool kids, saying, "I love reggae, booya, whatever," but for him, "it was kinda corny," although Naima has "mad flavor." (Way to be real, dawg.) Steven's useful critique included "Boom shaka laka laka, baby," and he praised Naima for picking a song that fit her. In Naima's reggaeton universe, it's ok Randy didn't like her performance, because she did.

After a pointless shilling with Taio Cruz (something about viewers writing lyrics for a song), it was Paul's turn. Rocket Man was the song he chose, and Jimmy encouraged him to sing it as if it were an encore, after his band rocked out for more than 20,000 people. If that performance came with a ticket to Paul's concert, I'd ask for my money back. He pulled out the white floral suit again (an homage to Elton John, apparently) and although he played the guitar again, it was just boring. In an effort to be tender toward the end, he whispered the last few lines, but it came off as Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining-creepy rather than tender. I believe Paul has a great voice (another plug for his band, The Grand Magnolias, available on iTunes) but he just doesn't seem all that interested in adapting for the competition. There's knowing who you are as an artist and then there's just doing your thing no matter what, and I think Paul falls into the latter group. Randy said it was pitchy, but again praised when Paul's tender vocals came out. J.Lo asked whether Paul was holding back, and encouraged him to push himself. (Thank you, J.Lo.) Steven asked if Paul was watering the suit because there seemed to be more flowers than the last time, and then told Paul that his performances are like an album—not everyone will like every song, and in fact, Steven likes the type of singer who doesn't hit every note. (Then why, pray tell, is he judging a singing competition?)

The next big question of the night: will Pia sing another ballad? Yes. She hit the Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me jackpot, in fact. Jimmy didn't seem concerned she was singing another ballad, but encouraged Pia to "crush it." She hit the stage to smoke, red lights and then a sunset backdrop (the sun going down, so poetic), and surpassed probably every version of the song we've heard on the show—Justin Guarini's, Jasmine Trias', even Jorge Nunez's. (Clay Aiken, Bo Bice and David Archuleta also sang the song, but I just didn't have the patience to find all the YouTube clips.) Steven told Pia she was "as good as it gets" and said "it proves someone was wrong about her singing another ballad." J.Lo said it's "crazy" what Pia does with her voice, that she "slays it every time," and she sensed more of an emotional connection this time, but encouraged Pia to "stomp all over it" next time. Randy got a little defensive, saying that the issue isn't that Pia can't sing ballads, he just wants her to push herself, you know? But she can SING. He even heard Whitney! And Mariah! He "heard all of Pia and she was great," but he encouraged her to go to "the next color, the next elevator of love." When Steven Tyler looks at you like you're crazy, it's time to go back on your meds, dawg.

Just before Stefano's performance, we were treated to his father, Ernie, and Ernie's doppelganger, Howie Mandel, who said he was "kvelling" over Stefano but didn't think Ernie would know what that was. After that awkward moment, we discovered Howie was actually there to plug some Fox show about flash mobs. I won't say bring back Gordon Ramsay, but this pimping sucks. And so does Ryan's hair.

Stefano had a rough week last week, and hopes his singing Tiny Dancer will help redeem him. Stefano is like a cute, soul-patched Muppet, earnest as all get-out. But for someone who speaks English normally, his singing diction (quick, music experts, I'm sure there's a word for this) is bad. What, pray tell, is a "ballerinam"? (Because you must have seen her, dancing in the sand.) Stefano tried hard to show us how much he felt the song. He reached out his hand (for the line he interpreted as "tiny dancer, in my hands") and tried to keep his eyes open. But much like Casey (more on that later), old habits (and over-singing) die hard. The judges strained their arms patting themselves on the back and praised Stefano for "really listening to our notes" from last week about emotional connection. Steven said his voice sometimes sounded "a little Broadway" (oh, no, the dreaded Broadway). And then Stefano babbled about how much the judges' feedback meant to him, and how he tried so hard to take it to heart, and I wondered how a contestant I wanted to win a few weeks ago now is annoying me. Break, heart.

Lauren chose to sing Candle in the Wind because she really relates to the song. Really? Which part? Frightening commentary notwithstanding, I thought she gave her best performance of the season, sounding very much like Natalie Maines from The Dixie Chicks. She had a beautiful tone, with just a little twang and despite the prom dress, really was fantastic. Randy called it her "greatest Lauren Alaina performance of the season," which I agreed with despite the ridiculous yardstick of comparison. Steven told her, "I've loved you from the first moment you laid eyes on me," and said if she kept singing like that, "you can afford the whole dress," which somehow embarassed her. J.Lo said that "this was the first time everyone in America saw what we fell in love with," and I'd have to agree. But then Lauren chose that moment to kiss up to the judges, calling J.Lo "wonderful," etc. If I could completely turn off her personality and just listen to her voice, I'd be happy.

James talked about how much fun he had last week, particularly with the surprise visit from Hulk Hogan. This week, he chose to sing Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting), and as with all of his performances, he tore into it with a tremendous amount of gusto, racing through the crowd and carousing with the musicians. The piano even caught on fire (purposely). At times, I thought his voice sounded a bit like Poison or Twisted Sister. He is a much more polished performer than you'd expect for someone with as little experience as he has. The judges really liked his performance, although Steven cautioned him not to "wear out his welcome." (Whatever that meant.) The king of unscripted moments, James said that his biggest fear was having a "Pepsi moment" when the piano caught fire, since he was wearing so much hairspray. When Ryan's sponsor plug warning light went off and he reminded James that the show is sponsored by Coca-Cola, James replied, "Coke = good moments!"

Thia has a brother who moved away, and she was very sad, which is why she identifies with the song Daniel. (Hopefully her brother isn't blind, as Daniel is in the song.) Looking like Carrie-Ann Inaba, Thia took the stage under a red light (maybe they thought she was singing Roxanne?) and sang a very spare arrangement of the song. The truth is, she has a beautiful, beautiful voice, but she hasn't quite grasped the concept of performance yet. I almost wish she had waited a few years before auditioning, because I think she'll be a force to be reckoned with someday. J.Lo called the performance a "beautiful moment," and said Thia seemed very relaxed so "people can hear your wonderful voice." Randy has already written Thia off, telling her "she sang a great Elton John song well," but it was a safe choice, adding "I don't know how that will help you with the voting." Steven said that "when you pick the right song, the voice appears." (I think that's what the Blue Fairy told Pinocchio before she made him a real boy.) Short of another "shocker," I think Thia is going home this week.

Did you know that Casey was saved last week by the judges? Just in case you were away from your television, we got to see the dramatic footage again. During the photo shoot, Casey said he wanted to show the world that "big dudes with beards can model." He chose to take it down a few notches this week and sing Your Song. The producers suggested the best way to "shock the world" is if he shaved off his beard, so we were treated to an over-long segment of Casey getting the Cowardly Lion's makeover. And then we saw the newly groomed Casey, sitting on a sensitive stool, with the "Starry, Starry Night" backdrop. His version of the song was somewhat muted but showed off his voice for the first time in several weeks, however, at times you could tell he was struggling to keep his growling in check. I don't imagine the new and improved Casey Jekyll is going to be able to overcome his Mr. Hyde personality in the end. (Maybe more like Dr. Heckle and Mr. Jive.) As you'd expect, the judges fell over themselves for choosing to use the save on Casey, with Randy calling it "one of the greatest saves ever." (Dude, this was the third save. You saved Matt Giraud in season 8 and Michael Lynche in season 9. You didn't save him from drowning.) The judges called his performance "absolutely brilliant" and "very Casey." Ryan then had Casey explain his reaction to the save last week so everyone realized this was the sensitive Casey. "I wish I was happier," he said, "but I was just so blown away, so surprised, because I didn't think they'd use the save." Personality resurrected.

Leading into the commercials before his performance, we were promised a "softer, gentler Jacob." (No truth in advertising laws, huh?) He chose to sing Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word, tackled earlier this season by Robbie Rosen in his unfairly denied bid for a wild card. After some unnecessary fawning over Mary J. Blige (unnecessary meaning irrelevant, not meaning undeserving), Jimmy mentioned that Jacob gets in trouble when he "overdramatizes." (That's why the man is a pillar of the music business.) Coming out to a fog machine and Clay Aiken's Solitaire lighting, Jacob started out softer, and then went off the rails again. Badly. Pitchy notes, histrionics, the whole megillah. Not that the judges noticed. Steven nearly criticized him, but then said, "the first half was amazing, the second half...its equal." J.Lo, always the mistress of understatement, called the last note "one you don't see every day." (Every week, though, it seems.) Randy praised the performance but told Jacob he wished he would give him one "moment" per song, like Pia does. (I'd prefer a moment when he doesn't look like he's giving birth, but that's just me, I guess.)

Surprisingly, Haley got the pimp spot this week. Jimmy told her "every week some part of you is missing, so make sure the whole you drives to the show this week." (Mm-kay.) Haley chose to sing Bennie and the Jets, and Jimmy encouraged the piano player to "bang" the keyboard hard during the song. She started the song like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys (well, sort of), perched on top of the piano. While there was a second it appeared she wasn't sure if she should get down, she ultimately did. I love Haley's voice, and thought the jazzy-bluesy styling worked so well for this song. She definitely deserves to outlast some of the other contestants and I hope she does. J.Lo was so excited, exclaiming "That was it, Haley! It all came together! It was a great way to end the show!" Formerly critical Randy told Haley it was the best performance of the night, and Steven showed off his sibilancy (SAT word), telling Haley "she sings sexy."

All in all, I thought it was a really good night, without any of the trainwrecks I've come to expect from theme nights. I'd imagine one guy and one girl will go home tonight, although I've been surprised before.

Who should be in the bottom three: Thia, Naima and Scotty (sorry)
Who will be in the bottom three: Thia, Naima and Stefano, or Paul. I suppose Thia and Naima could go home, but that would leave three girls and six guys and that seems nearly impossible.

Until tonight, when we'll be entertained by Fantasia (I know she's talented but she frightens me) and (ugh) Jamie Foxx. (I had hoped I'd never have to see him again after he won the Oscar.)

Remember: good moments = Coke!

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